The Buddhist oxygen mask

If you are travelling with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your oxygen mask on first, and then assist the other person.

Anyone who has flown on a commercial airline has heard this instruction; anyone who flies frequently has heard it so often that it becomes background noise, though relatively few of us have ever had the chance to put it into practice. If the plane cabin depressurizes and the oxygen masks drop, one has only seconds before running out of oxygen oneself; if one tries to put the oxygen mask on a child first, hypoxia may inhibit one’s ability to put the mask on the child correctly, to say nothing of the risk to oneself. One can best save both people by attending to oneself first – running against any parent’s natural instinct to protect his own child.

I’m not the first to see this advice as a metaphor for other forms of ethical conduct in relationships: “the oxygen-mask principle”. Often we can take care of others most effectively by taking care of ourselves. What I also see, though, is that this principle is deeply Buddhist.

The Dhammapāda, one of the oldest and most beloved Buddhist texts, gives us something very similar to the oxygen-mask principle in its twelfth chapter: “One should first establish oneself in what is proper; then only should one instruct others. Thus the wise man will not be reproached.” (v. 158) Take care of yourself first.

The Dhammapāda is not a Mahāyāna text, and the closing verse of that chapter does present a striking contrast to much Mahāyāna advice: “Let one not neglect one’s own welfare (attha) for the sake of another, however great. Clearly understanding one’s own welfare, let one be intent upon the good.” (v. 166) One cannot imagine Śāntideva enthusiastic about that advice, with his exhortations of giving everything, including one’s accumulated goodness, to others. That all is consistent with the basic World Religions 101 explanation that Theravāda Buddhism is about seeking one’s own liberation, and Mahāyāna about seeking others’.

And yet Śāntideva’s own advice is not so far from that of the Dhammapāda. As Richard Mahoney noted, Śāntideva’s Śikṣā Samuccaya is structured around the 4×3 grid identified in its fourth root verse (kārikā). That is, it is about three kinds of things – one’s person (ātmabhāva), possessions or “enjoyments” (bhogas) and goodness or good karma (puṇya) – and doing four kinds of things with each of these. One gives them or gives them up (utsarga) – but one also protects, purifies and enhances them. The eventual goal is to take one’s self or one’s body, one’s possessions, and one’s good karma, and give them to others in order to benefit them – but first, one needs to protect, purify and enhance all of them. The first chapter focuses on giving, but the remaining eighteen chapters focus on these latter processes: ways that one protects oneself and makes oneself better, in order that one might eventually be of use to benefit others. These chapters discuss topics from meditations on patient endurance to medicines for sickness. The focus on these more self-oriented aspects of the bodhisattva’s career is so strong that other scholars of the Śikṣā (Cecil Bendall and Barbra Clayton) describe it only in terms of them, leaving the giving part out entirely.

All of this suggests to me that, though I don’t think he agrees entirely with the Dhammapāda’s perspective, Śāntideva too endorses the oxygen-mask principle. One must protect oneself, or one cannot protect others. This point might be made clearest in chapter VIII of the Bodhicaryāvatāra, which contain Śāntideva’s famous arguments for and meditations on altruism. Yet Śāntideva opens even that chapter with advice to seclude oneself in the forest, noting that “one should flee far from a fool” (VIII.15). The contrast of these passages with the later praise of altruism is striking, but important: if one lets oneself get too influenced by fools and their way of thinking, one will lose one’s own progress in a way that means one cannot benefit others.

So, I think, the Dhammapāda and Śāntideva agree on the oxygen-mask principle – and I think they are right to do so. Its lesson is driven home painfully and memorably in Grace and Grit, Ken Wilber’s memoir of his wife Treya’s cancer treatment and eventual death. (I just found out that it is apparently now a movie, though one I haven’t seen and can’t vouch for.) Knowing the extreme suffering that Treya is going through, he gives her everything: they live in a house with multiple spare rooms and he lets her have all of them, doing his work in the living room – which she then proceeds to occupy and make noise in. When he protests, she refuses to move – and all his bottled-up resentment comes out so hard that he hits her. He would have been better able to take care of her if he had set some boundaries to take care of himself. He was so eager to put the oxygen mask on the one who depended on him that he failed to secure his own mask first, in a way that was bad for both. (As for me, I read Grace and Grit and thought I had learned that lesson long before I went through a far too similar experience, but looking back on how things went for me and my wife, I don’t think I actually did. Another unfortunate reminder of how understanding something in theory is very different from applying it in practice.)

Cross-posted at Love of All Wisdom.

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